High & Wild in Eastern Oregon

Eagle Cap: Encounters with Elk
By Joy Cordell
  |  Gorp.com
The 9,000-foot Wallowa Peaks offer a rich geologic history.
The Wallowa Peaks

The morning dawned fair and by the time the sun reached the rim the air was warming nicely. We wandered down the creek — I with rod in hand to explore pools and ponds, and Jeff eventually crossing and working his way toward the base of Twin Peaks.

High Exposure

I heard him whistle his location a few times, but didn't realize he'd decided to scramble the peak until I spotted his bright yellow T-shirt halfway up the 9,600-foot summit ridge. I climbed up a huge mass of boulders — which I later found out was dubbed the Broken North Pinnacle (the whole mass had tumbled 2,000 feet in the early 20th century) — and then up a snowfield with Jeff's tracks on it to a lower peak. The perfect spot to sit, watch his progress, and imagine emergency scenarios.

He disappeared from sight before he reached the ridge and later described a plateau meadow and view to a lake on the other side, likely Legore or Deadman. The small fluffy clouds that were sailing in as he descended soon ganged up into an angry mass and we huddled next to a boulder (the tent had an aluminum center pole) and watched the lightning strike the mountains around us. It was probably good that Jeff didn't see the bolt that hit a rock platform next to the trail he climbed just one hour earlier. When the lightning moved slightly north, and the sharp pea-size hail began to make itself felt through our jackets, we gave up and took refuge in the tent.

Encountering Elk

The weather resolved into gray, drippy clouds and we hiked south to the head of the lake and the interesting smooth gray rocks that mounded up before the peaks. As we crossed meadows, creeks, and tundra, we saw evidence of old hunting camps. We reached the end of the valley, stopped to pause on a lower hill, and looked up to see an elk silhouetted on the ridge about a quarter mile above us. He disappeared over the ridge; Jeff and I looked at each other and set out immediately to follow.

We worked our way up the hill, me following faint animal trails and Jeff going straight up. Just below the edge, we both looked up and stiffened in surprise. Two elk, equally shocked, stood 75 feet in front of Jeff. Jeff motioned to me — he could see two elk that were hidden from me by rocks. Almost immediately, an elk stepped up on the rock 30 feet in front of me to assess the danger. I could only see his chest and head, but he was enormous and he was giving me a serious look. Jeff tried to get his camera out and the movement sent them all into flight.

Back to Camp

We returned to camp via a higher route, wandering up hills and crossing snowfields and meadows, wishing we had more exploring time before dark. We easily could have spent days and not covered all the easy routes, let alone the more difficult ones.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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